‘Service delivery’ isn’t the problem

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Our problem is not that we have too little “service delivery”. It is that we have too much.

If that sounds odd, ask hundreds of people in Lenasia. Whenever poor people take to the streets, we are told that they are engaged in “service delivery protests”. Events in Lenasia show that this misunderstands what they are doing and saying.

Insisting that the government is only letting citizens down when it fails to deliver services suggests a particular view of its role which is not democratic – and is, from the evidence we have, not the view of most people who take to the streets to protest.

In this view, government decides what people want and delivers it to them. Citizens are meant to receive whatever is “delivered”, not to decide whether it should be delivered at all. Only if what is delivered is not up to standard can citizens express themselves – not by having a real say in decisions, which are taken about them but by demanding better “delivery”.

If that is the government’s role, it does not matter whether it listens to people or takes their concerns seriously. What matters is whether it has technically trained officials who are good at working out what people want and giving it to them.

But in Lenasia, people were not demanding that the government deliver – on the contrary, they wanted it to go away, which in this case meant not demolishing their houses.

They were rejecting service delivery, not asking for it, because it means that officials decide where houses should be, who should live in them – and who should be stopped from living in them.

In many grassroots protests, the issue is not that people want the government to do things for them – it is that they want it to respect their right to live and trade where they want. The common theme in protests, even when protesters do want better facilities in their areas, is that people are saying that they are not being listened to, not that they are not receiving the goodies they want.

In fairness to the authorities, listening to people at the grassroots is not straightforward. While calls to consult “the community” sound good, this phrase describes people who may live in the same place but are divided on what they want because they have different interests.

In Lenasia, the people in the houses which the authorities demolished, were living in illegal structures built on land allocated for housing. And so officials insist that, by enforcing the law, they are protecting homeless people who are entitled to occupy houses on the land from criminals who are making money by selling it. Reports suggest that some people in the area support the government action and wish it had happened sooner.

But, while this shows that listening to citizens is complicated because people have differing interests, it is not an argument for the service delivery approach which the authorities are using in Lenasia – using law to enforce their decision on what should be done with the land.

It is hard to believe that chasing people off the land is going to solve the problem. Those who were evicted are unlikely to leave the province – and unlikelier still to find legal housing elsewhere. So the authorities have not solved a problem; at best they have pushed it to another place.

The Indian academic Partha Chatterjee points out that people living in “illegal dwellings” in India are, according to its constitution, citizens with rights – but are treated by the authorities as if they were only planning problems. The same can surely be said of the people who were evicted in Lenasia.

Nor is it clear who is going to benefit once the residents are driven somewhere else. While in principle it seems fair to insist that homes should be made available to the homeless by placing deserving people on a waiting list rather than by allowing people to buy land from thieves, most citizens of Gauteng don’t seem to see the housing lists as fair either.

And so many people won’t believe that the demolitions will ensure a fair process in which deserving people get the houses – they might feel that one unfair process has been stopped so that another can begin.

All this suggests that meeting housing needs in this country is more complicated than using tough measures to enforce the law.

If the Lenasia demolitions simply shift land occupations from one part of the province to another and do not produce housing allocations, which everyone accepts as fair, it is hard to see what problem has been solved. The first route to a solution in Lenasia is to recognise that the authorities seemed out of touch – why else did they only notice the problem after brick houses were built on the land?

Service delivery is about deciding for people what they need, not finding out how they are living and working with them. Lenasia shows that this won’t work; the government will not solve the problem unless it builds an understanding of what is happening in the area before imposing “solutions”.

The second is to recognise that no way was found of balancing the needs of those who bought the homes with the state’s need for an orderly housing process. That would be easy, but if government continues to duck the challenge the result will surely be more and more Lenasias as people whose housing needs are not met by the official programme are forced into other arrangements.

Throughout the country, the answer to problems like Lenasia is not the service delivery approach of deciding what is best for people and using the law to enforce it. It is rather to hear the voices and interests on the ground and to negotiate solutions with which all can live. It is not an easy process. But it has one advantage over what was tried in Lenasia – it might produce a lasting solution.

  • Steven Friedman is the director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg.